Percussive massagers have emerged as a popular tool in the quest for muscular relief and enhanced physical well-being. These devices, known as massage guns, muscle massage guns, or deep tissue massage guns, are celebrated for their percussive pressure that targets sore muscles. However, only some of their claimed benefits are scientifically validated. This article delves into the Functional Patterns perspective, examining the efficacy of massage guns in light of the latest research on fascia, and provides alternatives like myofascial release.
Why Are People Using Massage Guns?
Massage guns, also known as percussion massagers, are increasingly popular tools used for muscle recovery, pain relief, and relaxation. They deliver rapid pulses to the muscles, which helps reduce soreness and muscle stiffness, especially after intense physical activities. Percussive therapy is believed to improve blood circulation, speed muscle recovery, and reduce lactic acid buildup. (1, 2)
While the benefits are on par with any form of massage therapy, the effectiveness of these devices in truly addressing fascial issues is a subject of debate. Tight muscles, or fascial adhesions, are a common target for massage guns. While these devices may provide temporary relief, their ability to fundamentally resolve muscle knots is limited compared to more sustained pressure techniques. (3) So, we must ask a few questions: Do percussive massagers and massage guns actually work? And are they truly safe? Are there alternatives that get to the root of pain or persistent muscle stiffness?
The Potential Risks of Massage Guns
Massage is generally considered safe, but adding percussive pressure to the mix changes a relaxing practice into a potentially damaging impact. These percussive massagers create pulses of downward force into the body’s soft tissue like a jackhammer. This can potentially damage the soft tissue when overdone, leading to tissue irritation and increased muscle soreness.
With that being said, there are more potential risks of using percussion massagers or massage guns for people without an understanding of anatomy. For example, suppose you don’t know the location of crucial nerves, lymph nodes, bursa, tendons, ligaments, or organs accessed from the abdomen. In that case, you may cause yourself injury by using a massage gun. One must also be aware that using a percussive massager on inflamed connective tissue, such as torn ligaments, will cause further damage.
Why Are Our Muscles Craving Massage?
Understanding the signal behind muscle stiffness and why we have this sensation that drives us to seek out massage or stretching is essential. This phenomenon has to do with fascia.
Fascia is a connective tissue network surrounding muscles, bones, and organs. Imagine a thin, tough, and elastic web that wraps around everything in your body – muscles, bones, organs, and nerves. That's fascia. It's not just a covering; it's a network that connects every part of you. Fascia is filled with nerves, making it almost as sensitive as your skin. It's not just there for structure; it's also a key part of how your body senses and communicates internally.
Fascia can develop stiffness and adhesions for a few reasons. This can happen when the muscle area is overused or misused due to poor movement patterns. Fascia can also become stiff due to stress, anger, or trauma. Fascia can also develop adhesions due to the central nervous system sensing weakness in the region.
While massage guns can aid in overall muscle relaxation and may help with some superficial fascial issues, their effectiveness in breaking down deeper fascial adhesions is unclear. The rapid percussion might not penetrate deeply enough to impact significant adhesions.
A Comprehensive Strategy for Healthy Fascia
The muscle stiffness that causes many people to reach for a massage gun is not fate. There are safer, more effective strategies that get to the root of these issues and are worth considering.
Myofascial release, in the method of Functional Patterns, involves applying constant, deep pressure to the fascial tissue to relax adhesions or trigger points, relieve pain, and restore muscle function. This technique aligns with the findings of the preeminent fascial researcher, Dr. Robert Schleip, that consistent, deep-pressure methods offer the most effective strategy for fascial hydration. (3) Fascial hydration is what influences muscle pain or how stiff you feel when moving. (4, 5)
Direct pressure should be applied to the affected area with an appropriately sized ball. After holding this pressure for 2-4 minutes, the adhesion will spread, allowing the fascia to reorganize itself and bring fluid into the area. This is what we mean by fascial hydration. This state of hydration is not permanent, as fascia constantly remodels and responds to how you use your muscles. It’s a long-term practice that should be supported by exercise that also re-tensions the fascia, such as Functional Patterns.
The most important thing you can do to decrease pain and stiffness caused by fascial adhesions is to train muscles according to the biological blueprint of human movement. Our fascial web has evolved because of the movements we call the FP First Four: standing, walking, running, and throwing. Fascia benefits significantly from training these patterns because they are rhythmic and take our fascia through a full-body stretch-shortening cycle. In other words, fascia responds most positively to the basic human movements of running and throwing - when done well.
These movements can be trained and improved fundamentally using the Functional Patterns 10-week online course, the Functional Training System, or by learning FP 1-on-1 with a certified practitioner.
While percussive massagers and massage guns offer a convenient and popular means to address muscle soreness, their effectiveness from a Functional Patterns perspective, particularly in dealing with deeper fascial issues, is limited. It's crucial to understand the capabilities and limitations of devices like massage guns and stay focused on methods that seek to get to the root of physical issues.
Techniques that apply sustained, deep pressure, like the myofascial release techniques employed in the 10-Week Online Course, align more closely with the latest scientific understanding of pain relief and fascial hydration. Furthermore, we can address the root causes of muscle stiffness and fascial adhesions by implementing a training system that supports fascial health.
- The Acute Effects of a Percussive Massage Treatment with a Hypervolt Device on Plantar Flexor Muscles’ Range of Motion and Performance - PMC (nih.gov)
- JFMK | Free Full-Text | The Effects of Massage Guns on Performance and Recovery: A Systematic Review (mdpi.com)
- (PDF) Immediate effects of myofascial release treatment on lumbar microcirculation: a randomized, placebo-controlled trial (researchgate.net)
- Muscle Pain: It May Actually Be Your Fascia | Johns Hopkins Medicine
- (PDF) Examination of Myofascial Stiffness and Elasticity in the Upper Trapezius Region in Patients with Unilateral Neck Pain: A Cross-Sectional Study (researchgate.net)